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January 31, 2018

Mythbusting and MOPE

Liam Kennedy, Unhappy the Land: The Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish? (Merrion Press, 2015, 272 pps, €24.99 PB, ISBN 978-1-785370298).

It is in some ways a shame that Liam Kennedy’s book came out when it did. The publication was undoubtedly timed to coincide with the probably peak of nationalist chest-beating in 2016 on the centenary of the Easter Rising. And yet, almost two years later, it feels like it might have even more to say to Ireland, and scholars of Ireland, now than then. It was too early for Brexit and Donald Trump, even a little too early for the explosion in the online abuse of history in the form of the Irish slaves meme. Such are the vagaries of publishing.

I say all of this because, this assembled set of essays, some of which were previously published in other forms, are of such high quality that one wishes Kennedy had been able to turn his hand to Ireland’s relationship with Britain in a post-Brexit Referendum world, or in an age when being Irish in America is complicated still further with Donald Trump in the White House. Though we are lucky to have Liam Hogan dissecting and debunking the racism which underlies the White Irish Slave myth, having Liam Kennedy do the same would, on the evidence of these essays, have been an utter delight.

This is not a book for people who treasure the sacred cows of Irish national history. It is at times a tour-de-force skewering of many treasured presumptions of the Irish national narrative. That it does this without sliding too much into either academic jargon, or reliance upon post-modern theory, and the fluidity of meaning in terms of the historical past is, once again, greatly to Kennedy’s credit. He notes, in a wry passage on the final page that ‘The cultural sphere, in Ireland as elsewhere, seems to have had far more autonomy… the elasticity of culture… is the stuff of another exploration, for another day, or, more likely, another writer.” (217)

Self awareness aside, as an economic historian first and foremost, an insistence in some cases on tabulated statistics as the way forward clears the path for a handful of early chapters which tested this reviewer’s patience. However, getting over these relatively dull entrees, the reader is treated to some especially meaty work in the middle and final sections of the book.

This is a book I wish I had had to hand several years ago when I was tutoring classes of first year undergraduates in UCC. It is not hard to praise Kennedy’s dissection of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic from 1916 as a text, nor his similar ability to untangle the strands that lie behind the Ulster Covenant of 1912 and its female counterpart, the Declaration. In a book rich with mythbusting of the most robust kind, the standout chapter – and the one that makes me think instantaneously of how Kennedy might handle the White Irish Slaves myth given the chance – is his chapter on the Irish Famine and its supposed similarities to the Shoah.

Kennedy rightly defines Irish history and myth making – the national project of reading into our shared history (whatever that might be in itself) – as one laced with a sense that no matter how bad it was for others, it was equally bad if not worse for us, the Irish. The idea of the Famine as an active form of genocide, we learn from Kennedy, was driven in large part by the Irish-American lobby for Great Irish Famine memorial, and it was from here that comparisons with the Jewish experience of the Shoah began to be drawn. Kennedy finds the entire project of this comparison utterly wanting, and it is difficult on the evidence to disagree. It’s worth noting however that one can draw similarities between the Irish and Jewish experience of a desire for self-governance that are fruitful, as work by the likes of Aidan Beatty has shown.

Unhappy the Land  is replete with the full academic apparatus of copious endnotes, an extensive bibliography, and an index. This makes it an excellent work for teachers, tutors and lecturers alike. I would certainly consider it an important addition to the toolbox of those attempting to teach the historiography of Ireland.

The choice of combined endnotes over footnotes helps the flow of the book. They are there for those so inclined, but are not intrusive. A word on this is necessary too: only very occasionally are the attempts at bridging these disparate essays strained by the occasional repeated phrase or reframed argument that crops us elsewhere. The choice of Louis Le Brocquy’s Reconstructed Head of an Irish Martyr, also known as Evoked Head of an Irish Martyr makes it an attractive looking book – and the choice is pointed. The head being evoked by Le Brocquy is that of Wolfe Tone. Le Brocquy was born in 1916, that infamous year in modern Irish history. Le Brocquy though was an artist who managed to engage with Ireland and Irish themes while remaining a thoroughly international person in outlook and engagement.

From the front cover to the final paragraphs the reader is challenged to think again on many assumptions about our national narratives. As we drift out of the decade of centenaries towards the uncertainties of being neighbour to a non-EU state, such rethinking and understanding of the past as Kennedy exemplifies here will be all the more necessary.

David Toms lives and works in Norway, where he teaches English at Folkeuniversitetet. He is the author of Soccer in Munster : A Social History, 1877-1937 (Cork University Press, 2015).